Settling into a new year, it can be easy to get sucked into wellness trends and the pressure to strive for a “better” 2024. This summer, Siena Yates turned instead to sources of self-care in te ao Māori. Here she is with the hard lessons she learned along the way.
I’ve never really been one for karakia, but that changed this summer. Just before Christmas, I thought it was a good idea to hike Te Komama, the Routeburn Track in Otago, despite a questionable level of fitness, experience and preparation.
I did a karakia before we started, largely because I knew that was the right time to do one. Just in case. You never know. But toward the end of the first day, overwhelmed by the realisation that I was in way over my head, another karakia just poured out of me.
It was the first time in my life where anything even close to a karakia just rose up unbidden. It flowed out of my mouth in te reo Māori and I felt the words settle on me, and the area around me.
I can’t tell you what I said because I don’t remember. I know I spoke to Papatūānuku, to Tāne, whose forest I felt I had no business wandering through, and to my tūpuna — especially my koro.
It was a general plea for strength, guidance, safety, and energy. And it was less about getting to the top of that particular hill, and more about overcoming the mental barriers that I felt sure would get in my way over the next two and a half days.
Not only did I feel a new wairua settle over the path, but, at that exact moment, a manu flew in and perched itself in front of me. When I took a couple of steps, it made a few hops down the path, turned, and watched me. Waiting. When I picked up momentum, it flew ahead a little, then perched on the side of the track. I realised then that it was answering my karakia and guiding me up the track.
Annoyingly, I burst into tears, couldn’t breathe properly, and had to take a break. The manu disappeared. But from then on, different manu would make themselves known throughout the hike. Every time one appeared, I felt a sense of encouragement and, a couple of times, a sense of that one tough-love aunty who tells you to “get it together or else”.
Karakia is often one of the main things people cite as a wellness tool in te ao Māori, but until I was puffing my way through Te Komama, I’d never fully understood why. To be honest, I’d never fully connected with the practice of karakia, even though I learned the words, knew their meaning, and recited them daily.
I don’t know what was different this time. Perhaps it was because the karakia wasn’t one I’d learned and memorised — rather, the words came directly from my ngākau, and carried all my fear and whakamā with them.
Or maybe I’m just more open now, having spent the past year investigating new avenues of wellness within te ao Māori. One of the simplest things I’ve done has been making an effort to get out into nature, where I’ve found myself casually having a kōrero with whoever comes to mind in the moment — Hinemoana, Papatūānuku, Hina. Lately, I’ve been having a few choice words with Hine Raumati.
Often, I’ll talk to my koro. Just a passing mihi when the mood strikes, because one of the most interesting things about my journey to connect with te ao Māori is that I’ve developed a new sense of knowing — which runs far deeper than a “belief” — that my tūpuna are with me.
A couple of years ago, this understanding would’ve been too airy-fairy for my liking. But, at some point, it’s become part of how I view and interact with the world. So, when I find myself in a difficult situation, I’m comforted by the idea that te ao wairua has my back. I can find and follow the tohu — the signs and interventions — that I’m sent, alerting me to when a thing or person is simply not for me, when something is none of my business, or when I need to slow down and reconnect.
Sometimes, as I found at Te Komama, the tohu is a kick up the arse. It hurts and it makes me cry. I feel like I’ve been sent off to think about what I did to deserve it. But it’s also enough to disrupt whatever I was doing and force a reset — often necessary when gentle encouragement isn’t getting through.
The other thing I’ve been investigating is taonga pūoro. I’d always thought they were simply instruments to make music, but at a wānanga last year, I learned for the first time about their healing properties.
That healing power makes sense when you hear the taonga played. Many of the wind instruments are reminiscent of a wailing tangi or the call of a karanga, and the notes strike your wairua in the same way. Sometimes, just hearing these taonga can trigger enough of a release to help me feel better.
But then the act of playing them works in other ways, too. Playing a kōauau can be the mindful breathing exercise you never knew you needed, and the porotiti makes for a very effective type of fidget tool when you’re anxious.
Sometimes, I take my taonga to the beach to practise — mostly because the wind and sea are so loud people can’t really hear my sad attempts to get a tune out, but also because the wairua seems to match. The practice also doubles as way to get back into nature and to the moana.
I got so into taonga pūoro that I ended up carving my own pūtōrino, with the help of whakairo tōhunga Michael Matchitt, which was an incredibly healing experience. I learned a new skill which is also a very old skill, and it kept my hands busy and my mind fully engaged in a way that little else has managed to do.
It wasn’t only the act of working the wood. It was the kōrero we shared in the hours we spent in the workshop, the things I learned about the importance of both whakairo and taonga pūoro in te ao Māori, and the unexpected life lessons I received through this lens. I had to get over my fear of failure and just give it a go, because that’s the nature of the mahi. Yes, the wood might split, but all you can do is take whatever precautions you can, choose the right tool, and begin to work. And if the wood does split, you’ve learned a lesson, and you can start over — and, hopefully, avoid the same fate.
With whakairo, there isn’t just one correct way to do anything. You have to feel it out, see what’s going to work with your body and strength, and accept that you’re probably going to be a bit shit and slow at first. There’s nothing to be done about that except to practise and build the skill.
Then there was the lesson in acknowledging that my first piece would never be perfect. My kaiako could’ve easily fixed my mistakes and made the pūtōrino perfect, but that wasn’t the point. The point was for me to do it, and to learn what to do differently next time. Besides, what I’ve wound up with is a one-of-a-kind piece that no one else has. (Whether anyone else would even want it is a whole other question, of course.)
These are all lessons which, for an anxious mind, are difficult to come to terms with on a theoretical level. But applying them to a physical practice underscores their value, and they now guide a lot of other things I’ve done since.
I’m sharing this because I think summer is a difficult time of year for many people, and we don’t really talk about that. There’s the financial pressure of Christmas and taking time off, the social pressures of the party season and seeing all your mates on Instagram enjoying beach holidays, and the pressure that comes with the whānau gathering or just having the kids at home while you still have to work. Then there’s the “new year, new me” diet culture, and of course, the post-holiday blues. Not to mention the general expectation that you should be happy in summer.
As someone who’s spent a lot of money on therapy and various tools for mental wellness, there’s been a lot of joy and relief in discovering that some of the most helpful things don’t cost any money.
They’re just about slowing down, having a kōrero, and letting the ways — and the manu — of both the taiao and our tūpuna guide me.
Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, and Ngāti Kuri) is an E-Tangata writer, and this piece was made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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